Jesus shall reign where e’er the sun
Doth his successive journeys run;
His kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.
That’s how an old missionary hymn begins, and it turns out the missionaries were right. In the last 100 years Christianity became the most diverse and global religion ever, with Christians from the Global South now outnumbering those from the Global North, and forming a majority in 158 of more than 200 countries and territories surveyed.A new report from the invaluable Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the most important source for information on religion in today’s world, will make a lot of people unhappy. The report looks at religious belief worldwide and finds that Christianity in the last one hundred years grew to become the world’s most widespread and diverse religion as well as the largest. Roughly one third of the world’s almost seven billion people are (or at least say they are) Christian. The second largest religion, Islam, claims about one fourth of the world’s population.The most dramatic change in the last 100 years is Christianity’s global surge. In 1910, there were about 9 million Christians in sub-Saharan Africa, the Pew survey reports. Today there are more than half a billion. This fact is of interest to geopoliticians as much as to believers: sub-Saharan Africa remains the scene of intense Christian-Muslim competition, a competition that frequently breaks out into violence. The Christians appear to be winning the “race for Africa” at least for now as more than 60 percent of sub-Saharan Africans look to the Cross rather than to the Crescent. As the US increases its presence in Africa, the common religious orientation will likely make for better and deeper ties.In another major development, Christianity has achieved a significant presence on the mainland of Asia. One hundred years ago despite intense missionary effort, Christianity had a negligible presence in China; today China, where an estimated 5 percent of the population (about 67 million people) professes the Christian faith, has one of the ten largest populations of Christians in the world. In South Korea the rate of growth has been even faster. Overall, the proportion of Christians in the Asia Pacific region rose only slightly in the last 100 years: from 4 percent in 1910 to 7 percent in 2010. That growth seems to have accelerated significantly in the last half of the last century; the future of Christianity as a global faith will likely depend on what happens in countries in East, South and Southeast Asia.Globally, the Catholic Church continues to be the largest single religious organization in the world; slightly more than half of the world’s Christians are in communion with the Bishop of Rome. The Pentecostal and charismatic movements, which are only about a century old, are the most quickly growing Christian movements, growing from zero to almost 600 million adherents in the last 100 years.Religious demography has many problems, but the Pew survey is the best information available today. The entire report can be downloaded; go see the summary and access the download here. A familiarity with religious history, religious culture and religious demography is essential for anybody who aspires to be a serious student of world affairs; this Pew report is not to be missed.One interesting speculation: the push toward democracy in many countries has been led by Christian laypeople and religious organizations. (That was not true 100 years ago; outside the English speaking world at that time many Christian churches and movements were closely tied to premodern, anti-democratic or anti-republican ideas.) From South Korea to Poland to South Africa by way of Egypt, Christians have been key players in both successful and unsuccessful democracy building movements. Will the rise of Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa promote better, more democratic government there as Christian ideas sink in more deeply among the citizens and leaders of those countries?That was part of the missionary dream: that the spread of Christianity would lead to the spread of freer, better government. The reign of Christ would liberate mankind, they hoped, or as the hymn put it:
Blessings abound where e’er he reigns:
The prisoner leaps to lose his chains,
The weary find eternal rest,
And all the sons of want are blest.
We shall see. Stranger things have happened.